Some 5,000 non-governmental organisations (NGOs), mainly green but also trade unions and consumer associations, arrive to begin laying siege to the conference. They lay on an all-day symposium to lobby delegates but the start is delayed for hours by a false bomb threat. Not NGOs sabotaging their own event but an over-zealous police response to a window being left open.
Once things get going the difficulties of negotiating become transparent. Conference proceeds by consensus, which maximises the opportunity for any of 134 countries (Egypt defies the world) to block progress. It also rapidly becomes clear that all the main blocs have conflicting agendas. The US wants a protectionist approach to trade and labour standards. The EU, Japan and Korea are defensive over agricultural markets. The US and Cairns group (Australia, Argentina and Chile) want agriculture liberalised. The EU wants measures to protect the environment. The US wants WTO rules to predominate. Developing countries regard any move on the environment as a protectionist device to close off Western markets to their goods. Deadlock looms.
PRESIDENT CLINTON is due to open the conference on Tuesday but his visit is postponed by 24 hours to avoid the protests. Negotiations begin in earnest, particularly between the EU and the US. But we hadn't reckoned with the Seattle police, who single -handedly manage to turn a peaceful protest into a riot. The protesters say the WTO is arrogant, secretive, rides roughshod over labour standards and the environment and is unaccountable (not my view but a widespread perception).
Star Wars-style stormtroopers fire volleys of tear gas to force back the crowds, windows are smashed and 400 arrests are made. Delegates, when not being gassed in the streets, are confined by order in their hotels. Charlene Barshevsky, the US trade representative delegated by Clinton to open the conference in his stead, is prevented from doing so because she cannot leave her hotel. And then the state governor declares a state of emergency - this in an American city hosting an international conference.
AGENDALESS IN Seattle, but this film is going to be a thriller. There is something Kafkaesque about it all. Large numbers of people continually circulating, endless rounds of meetings, the same rumours passed round the carousel, expanding as they go, everyone testing the opinions of everyone else. Yet very little is actually happening.
The previous Uruguay Round of talks was widely condemned as a stitch- up between the EU and the US. Everyone swore this would be different - transparent, inclusive, the developing countries fully participating. But they're not. By Wednesday the same classic pattern is recurring: the EU and US are settling the details together in the Green Room (a small conclave of the big players) so that there's a package at the endgame if all else fails.
BUT THE fixing isn't confined to the EU and US. It's also happening inside the EU itself. On Thursday Pascal Lamy, an able Frenchman who is the EU Trade Commissioner, presents us with an EU draft working paper. It quickly becomes clear that it has already been circulated to delegations from other states and to the press - so the Commission has committed itself, and with it the EU, before EU ministers have even had a chance to consider it.
It is a carefully crafted document, checked with the US and other key negotiators. I am pleased that there is a section on trade and the environment that largely incorporates what I have come to Seattle to secure. But there is a catch. The US is angry that the Europeans have blocked their markets for GM products over the past year, and now proposes a new working party on biotechnology within the WTO. The Europeans smell a rat. They want the matter settled outside the WTO.
A General Affairs Council of EU ministers is held to discuss Lamy's draft paper. All member states reject the biotech working party; the council asks him to drop the proposal. He says it's part of a package and can only be dropped by dropping the entire package. Deadlock again.
Meanwhile the demos continue. The police, 300 state troopers and two National Guard units have cordoned off 50 blocks of central Seattle. An eerie quiet descends on what is the normal hubbub. President Clinton comes and goes, causing a stir - ad-hoccing most of his speech - saying he is ready to use trade sanctions to enforce labour standards, thus inflaming several developing countries. Meanwhile the EU-US huddle continues. Endless in Seattle.
BY FRIDAY a poisonous atmosphere is developing among many developing countries, principally African, Caribbean and Pacific states, at being almost wholly excluded from the negotiations. Ominous rumblings are beginning to circulate that they may walk away from the final package as a protest, thus aborting the whole conference.
Not much more joy within the EU itself - the General Affairs Council is told that discussions on agriculture have deadlocked after seven hours in the Green Room. It's going to be a long night. Legless in Seattle.Reuse content